A niece to President-Elect Joe Biden will serve probation, but no jail time, for a Pennsylvania DUI crash which appeared to cause no injuries. The much-ballyhooed punishment for Caroline Biden, 33, is far from legally suspicious, several attorneys say. In fact, what happened in her run-of-the-mill case is actually commonplace.
According to court records, the niece Biden, of Bryn Mawr, Pa., originally faced three counts: DUI involving a controlled substance and impaired ability (as a first-time offender), driving without a license, and careless driving. Prosecutors threw out — or nolle prossed — the two lesser counts, and Biden pleaded guilty to DUI, a misdemeanor. The punishment, court records say, was set at between twenty days and six months in jail and a $1,000 fine. But the plea was “negotiated,” those records say, and the New York Post reports that Biden will actually serve only “five-plus months of probation, with 20 days of rehab in January counted toward her sentence.” Court records also mention participation in “a public or non-profit community service program for 12 hours” and say Biden must pay monthly offender supervision fees.
Biden slammed her car into a tree in August 2019, the Post reported, and her “car contained pill bottles for carisoprodol and lorazepam.”
“A blood test later confirmed those and other drugs were in her system,” the Post said, citing police.
But the report also contained hyperbole.
“Another Biden walks free,” the Post breathily stated.
“The walk-free plea continues a long Biden family tradition of avoiding jail time,” it later mocked.
The Sun balked that Biden merely received “NO jail time for ‘crashing car into tree while on drugs'” (capital letters in original).
Several criminal defense attorneys tell Law&Crime that the ultimate disposition of the matter is nothing out of the ordinary.
“The plea she received is comparable to other first offense DUI cases in that jurisdiction,” says Julie Rendelman, a former New York prosecutor who is now a criminal defense attorney. “In my experience with these cases, I have actually never seen a jail time offer unless the accident resulted in someone being injured.”
Former prosecutor and current New Jersey criminal defense attorney Bob Bianchi agrees — generally speaking.
“Nothing odd to me about this kind of resolution,” he tells Law&Crime via email. His mindset when he was a prosecutor, Bianchi says, was “to prefer to use rehab to count toward jail time, hoping for a successful rehab. Prison only exacerbates the person’s problems.”
New Jersey criminal defense attorney Mike Koribanics concurs.
“It seems pretty normal to me,” Koribanics says, pointing to the apparent lack of serious damage. “Even one car could be an aggravating factor.”
“On its face, nothing shocking,” he concludes.
Bianchi notes that any “subsequent offenses” would require prosecutors to “be more harsh.”
Famed criminal defense attorney Linda Kenney Baden tells Law&Crime the punishment fits the crime in this case, especially considering the crash was a one-car accident involving only Biden’s car and a tree. Penalties may have been more severe if, e.g., other cars were damaged or there were serious injuries or a “serious prior record,” Baden says.
Indeed, a spokeswoman for the prosecutor’s office told the Post that any subsequent violations would require Biden to serve time on the DUI charge. After all, that’s how plea deals work: they attempt to procure good future behavior by withholding punishment for bad past behavior.
But Biden has had brushes with the law in the past in other states. She received what the Daily Mail referred to as a “sweetheart deal” after using a “borrowed” credit card to rack up $110k worth of purchases at a Greenwich Village pharmacy between April 2015 and June 2016. Police arrested her on May 5, 2017, and charged her with larceny. She avoided a felony by pleading to a misdemeanor, serving community service, and paying back the money she owed. She reached the deal in June 2017 and said “nothing like this will ever happen again” when she was sentenced in July 2018, according to the Mail.
Bianchi says that if he prosecuted the case, and if the law so allowed, he would have attempted to use the priors against Biden. He believes Biden got her break on the credit card case and in his opinion is due for stronger punishment.
“She has a previous felony [level] offense (regardless of her plea) [which walked it back to a misdemeanor] where she has shown poor judgement, impulse control issues, and probably speaks to me of an addiction issue,” he says. He also said he “would also be very unimpressed” by Biden’s reported attempts in the credit card case to use her family name while arguing with the police. “As a prosecutor, this all adds up to me to a person with issues where she has received a previous break, and is still violating the law. More importantly, her actions caused an accident,” Bianchi says.
“From my vantage point as a prosecutor,” Bianchi concludes, “I would feel it is my duty to protect the public from those that flout the law, don’t take advantage of the breaks she previously received, and could very well kill someone the next time. I think I would hit her with some jail time given these additional factors. Maybe that would ‘sober’ her up a tad.”
Bianchi says prosecutors must also gauge public outcry should a defendant who benefited from leniency cause trouble in the future.
But Baden says the minor nature of the one-car crash likely carried significant weight in the prosecutor’s decision to offer the deal. Plus, she says, the credit card matter is unrelated.
“It is not unusual for an individual with a first time DUI to receive a non-jail disposition even with a prior unrelated criminal conviction,” she explains. “Obviously if the DUI resulted in serious injury to another, the offer may have involved more significant punishment. Further, many prosecutors’ offices have become more inclined in such cases to make offers that include drug and or alcohol treatment programs as a means to avoid incarceration.”
Law&Crime reached out to John I. McMahon, Jr., Biden’s defense attorney. No response to several questions was forthcoming at the time of publication.
Rendelman, Bianchi, Baden, and Koribanics all frequently appear on the Law&Crime Network.
[image via screen capture from YouTube/The Daily Mail]
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